Monday, August 03, 2009

Grumbling vs Lament: how to complain faithfully

Do all things without murmuring or arguing.

- Philippians 2.14

Throughout the Scriptures, there are two streams of complaint. One is roundly condemned as grumbling or murmuring and the other is held out as a model of godliness and is usually called lament or groaning. The former is exemplified by the children of Israel in the wilderness wanderings and the latter is found throughout the Psalms as well as being at the centre of one of my favourite NT passages.

But what is the difference between them? Is it possible to lament without grumbling, to groan without murmuring? In both cases, the speaker is discontent with the present circumstances and expresses this verbally. In both cases, there can be strong emotions of anger and frustration, of pain and sorrow. But there are three key differences between healthy and unhealthy dissatisfaction.

First, a different basis. Grumbling can be based on a perceived lack that has confused a want for a need. I might wish I had more money, but I doubt that I actually need more money. Sometimes this very lack can be a gift of God to stretch our trust and mature our perspective. Our society has largely forgotten what contentment looks like, particularly material contentment. "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that." (1 Timonthy 6.6-8) "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4.11-12) We don't need very much at all. That so many of us are massively wealthy is a blessing and a responsibility. But let's make sure that our complaints are not over something where contentment and thankfulness would be more appropriate. That said, when the Israelites complained for lack of food and water, this was a genuine need. So the basis of the complaint is not in itself sufficient to distinguish between murmuring and lament.

Second, a different primary audience. The children of Israel in the desert grumbled against Moses. The psalmist generally takes his complaint directly to God. When someone has a problem with me, if he just gripes about it behind my back, he does me a disservice and removes the possibility of a truthful and productive confrontation. He ought to either bear with my idiosyncrasy, or if it is a genuine fault, then he should speak to me with gentleness, humility and compassion, seeking to show me the problem, restore the relationship and help me grow. The last thing he needs to do is whinge about me to someone else. Similarly, if I have a beef with God, then that complaint ought to be brought into our relationship. God is big enough to handle it.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is a difference in temporal aspect. By this I mean that grumbling looks backwards at a real or perceived golden age and wishes that one were still back there while groaning looks forward to God's as yet unfulfilled promises. Compare these two examples:
“If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16.3)

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
    for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)
The first example looks backwards to good old days (!) in Egypt; the second looks forwards to the day when the psalmist will be rescued from his predicament.

Grumbling assumes that we know what is best and that this corresponds to where we have been. Better the devil you know. Better to be trapped in Egypt and live than to risk life in the desert for the sake of an unseen promise. That is grumbling. It looks backwards and does not trust. But faithful complaint looks forward to what has been promised. It yearns and aches and earnestly seeks the coming of God’s kingdom and is not content with the compromises and brokenness of today. In difficulty, it doesn’t ask “why is this happening to me?” or “what have I done to deserve this?” but simply “how long, O Lord, until you fulfil your promise?”

So don’t look back with regret, wistfully remembering or imagining what life would be like if only you didn’t have to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Instead, look forward with hope, to God’s coming kingdom, to the resurrection of the body, to God’s ultimate victory over all that enslaves and pollutes his good world. When you complain, complain faithfully.


Anonymous said...

thanks byron,
found this helpful at what is a challenging time

chris l

AG said...

This is profound.

I have been pondering recently what it looks like to be content in a life situation that is broken and tarnished and hard.

This post has provided much food for thought, and great encouragement to keep praying.

Thanks Byron.


Anonymous said...

ahh so timely for me, thanks bro

John David Penniman said...

Hey Byron,

I have been thinking alot about this topic, especially a little while back during my masters thesis. I was writing on Augustine's language of sorrow in his Expositions of the Psalms of Ascent.

He frequently uses words like groaning (gemit) or sighing (suspirat) among others to describe the disposition of the Christian pilgrim. The words seem to be quite interchangeable for him.

But, as you noted well, they seem to indicate a posture of the heart that is striving towards something, not slinking back in matter how sorrowful. It is not as if we must decide between being sorrowful and being a Christian.

Rather, we must learn how to sorrow well in light of our faith.

Great post. The coherence of these emotions within the Christian life is something I've been thinking about alot and hoping to include in my dissertation work. I'd love to hear more!

byron smith said...

Chris, AG and Bill - I am glad you found this helpful. It was helpful for me to articulate like this. I have been thinking about groaning for some time, but it wasn't until I had to preach a sermon on complaining (from Exodus) recently that I was forced to think about what makes the difference between right and wrong complaint.

John - Your work on Augustine sounds fasincating. I'm glad to discover myself not too far from him on this. As for hearing more, there are a couple of links in the post to some previous thoughts and I'm sure there is more to come at some stage...

Grace said...

Lovely post. I have often thought that if we could stop grumbling, we could almost stop sinning. The basis of grumbling is that feeling of entitlement which really comes from pride. Jesus had harsh words for grumblers.

byron smith said...

Grace, you are so right. False entitlement is a root of all kinds of evil. And yet remember that Jesus also said (more or less) blessed are the discontent.